By Katey Groya
Data has become quite a controversial word in the field of education. You likely have noticed schools have increased the number of assessments, or tests, that are given to students. So what do schools do with all this data? While the data may be used for a number of more controversial reasons (e.g., teacher evaluation), one of the reasons schools collect this data is to screen students to identify those at risk for academic concerns. Within the past few years, many school districts have adopted a process called, “Universal Screening” in which they give the same assessment to all students in a grade level multiple times throughout the school year, usually in fall, winter and spring. The goal is to catch struggling students as soon as they begin to show signs of academic concern and to provide them with assistance to improve their skills. I would argue that this process of universal screening is a valuable use of data. As early as 5 years ago, students were able to access additional support only if they qualified for special education services and had what’s called an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). However, students needed to be significantly behind their peers in order to qualify for that support. As a result, students with mild academic delays received little to no support. With no additional help, those mild delays often grew into more significant delays. Once those students were finally identified under the old system of identification, their delays were often too severe for services to close the gap. In many cases, they were identified too late.
In 2010, the law changed in Illinois and school districts are now required to utilize a universal screening system in which all students are screened for academic problems. Once identified, schools are then supposed to provide supplemental support to close the gap, thereby preventing more significant delays in the future for students. Many schools districts use multiple assessments to screen their students. Common assessments used to screen for academic difficulties include AIMSweb’s Curriculum-Based Measurement (CBM) in reading and math, Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) and the Illinois Snapshot of Early Literacy (ISEL) to name a few. These are short, sometimes timed assessments that provide a snapshot of a student’s basic skills. These assessments are not great at differentiating students whose skills fall in the high average range from those falling in the average range, but the screeners are fairly accurate in catching those kids who are behind or who are at risk for falling behind. Additionally, many schools in the Chicago area administer the NWEA Measures of Academic Progress (MAP). Unlike the previously mentioned screeners that are administered in a 1:1 format, the MAP is group administered on the computer and it provides a more in-depth assessment of a child’s skills in the areas assessed. Schools typically send the results home or share the results with parents within conferences.
What do schools do with the data? After the test is given and usually before results are shared with parents, teachers in a single grade will meet to analyze the students’ data in the grade. This process typically occurs two to three times a year. The principal often attends this meeting along with other support staff such as Reading Specialists and School Psychologists. This team of educators will reference each student’s data in relation to a certain “cut score”. A cut score is a predetermined score that typically represents the minimum level of performance that they want students to show. The team then identifies students falling below the cut score. They usually have a brief discussion about each of those students relative to other pieces of data such as classroom performance and the teacher’s observations of the student in class. Using the screening data and the teacher’s observations, the team discusses why the student is struggling and then matches that student up with an appropriate “intervention”. Schools use the term “intervention” to describe supplemental help that is given to students in addition to the curriculum in the classroom. The grade level team often groups students together who have similar academic needs and those students receive an intervention in a small group of usually 3-5 students. It’s crucial, however, that focus of the intervention matches the student’s need. For example, if a student is struggling with understanding what he reads but he is able to read grade level text without a problem, it would not be helpful for that student to receive an intervention aimed at improving phonics and reading fluency skills.
So how do you know if your child’s scores fall below the District’s cut scores? If they do, school personnel likely will notify you that your child was identified for supplemental support, or an intervention. If your child is identified as needing an intervention, it’s important for you to know why your child is struggling and what specifically is being worked on when your child receives the intervention. As a parent, it’s a good idea to ask your child’s teacher or intervention provider what you can do at home to help build your child’s skills.
Sometimes, schools only have time to address a part of the concern. For example, if a student demonstrates delays in several areas of reading such as knowledge of phonics, fluency and reading comprehension, a school likely is able to focus on only one of those areas within the intervention during the school day. Additional support at home or with an educational tutor who specializes in your child’s area of need will help boost your child’s skills. Furthermore, most schools are equipped with support staff to assist children with reading delays; however, they often have limited resources to provide additional support for students struggling in math. If your child is struggling in math, particularly if your child’s test scores fall below average, talk to your child’s teacher to find out what, if any, additional support is being provided. Supplementing school support with extra practice at home or with an educational tutor likely will be needed to improve your child’s math skills.
It can be overwhelming to look at and understand school data that comes home with your child. Take a moment to review the results and read the literature that describes what the test assesses and why it’s used. If you have questions or if you’re concerned about your child’s performance, talk to the classroom teacher or principal. As your child’s parent and strongest advocate, it’s important to know how your child is developing academically to ensure that school is a successful and enjoyable experience for him or her.
Katey Groya is a certified School Psychologist with over 15 years of experience working in the school setting. Katey has conducted numerous trainings for districts on assessment of learning and behavior, data based decision making, instructional interventions and appropriate ways to monitor the effectiveness of interventions. Katey has developed a solid understanding of the assessments (e.g., NWEA MAP, AIMSweb, DIBELS) and the decision making process often used by schools to evaluate academic performance of students. Furthermore, she has worked with parents, school teams and private providers (e.g., neuropsychologists) to facilitate the implementation of recommendations from private evaluations within the home and school setting. The Illinois State Board of Education awarded Katey with a “Those Who Excel” Award of Merit in 2011 for her contributions to education in Illinois.